COVID-19 and Pop Culture in Southeast Asia

Karl Ian Uy Cheng Chua, an Assistant Professor at the History Department and Director of the Japanese Studies Program at Ateneo de Manila University, wrote a piece “Covid-19 and Popular Culture in Southeast Asia” on how digital media responded to the pandemic and how it provides accurate and updated information that helps keep citizens safe:

While these roles were dominated primarily by television, radio and print, in recent years, digital media has been leading the information spaces, particularly in urban areas. An OECD study in 2017 showed that more than a quarter of the nation’s population have internet access: Brunei Darussalam (95%); Singapore (85%); Malaysia (80%); Philippines (60%); Thailand (53%); Vietnam (50%); Cambodia (34%); Indonesia (32%); Myanmar (31%); Laos (26%). (The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 2019) A further peculiarity is how popular culture has been used by organizations and individuals to attain their information dissemination goals. This has been accentuated during the COVID-19 pandemic, as quarantines of various forms were implemented by governments which encouraged citizens to stay at home, and limited their mobilities, created populations hungry for information on the virus. Popular culture is playing an integral role as the media not only provides information, as well as entertainment, it also creates a space for dialogue.

Find the full article – along with many more related to Pan-Asian responses to COVID – on Corona Chronicles: Voices from the Field.

Author: Camryn Thomas

COVID 19’s Religious Consequences in Singapore

Due to COVID-19, Singaporeans have been navigating religious aspects of quarantine since early April, when the Singapore Christian community had to experience Good Friday and Easter Sunday differently than usual. The Muslim community, knowing it would have to experience Ramadan differently this year as well, shared sympathies with the Christian community, most notably in a letter of encouragement written by the Mufti of Singapore, Nazirudin Mohd Nasir.

Since then, places of worship have been closed in order to help prevent the spread of the virus, making it difficult for citizens to continue religious practices. As Singapore entered Phase 1 of its “circuit breaker” on June 1st, the Archbishop of Singapore announced that Catholic churches would not reopen. Weeks after the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) publicized the required measures religious organizations must take before opening for private worship, Archbishop Williams stated caution was a part of “pastoral responsibility.” He also shared that the decision was made after the Roman Catholic Archdiocese studied the restrictions and requirements and consulted with parish priests.

Weddings, funeral services, and wakes with no more than 10 people present can still place, while abiding by the restrictions and requirements set by the ministry. The archdiocese is “looking forward to opening [its] churches for private prayer and adoration” under Phase 2, when some requirements are relaxed.

Mosques, however, were open to provide limited prayer spaces for private worship startin June 2nd. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) said the mosques would be reopened with “maximum precautionary measures” in Phase 1. The mosques will be open for limited hours with limited marked prayer zones, each accommodating up to five individuals at a time. MUIS has urged the community to give priority to mobile workers who are unable to perform prayers at a fixed workspace, while recommending that those who are young, elderly, those especially vulnerable to infection, and those with the ability to perform their worship at home to do so. Singapore is somewhat unique in its ability to regulate mosques in this way, since they operate under the umbrella of government-backed MUIS instead of as fully-independent local congregations.

Regular disinfection of common spaces, physical and temperature checks, as well as the national SafeEntry system are a few of the ways mosques are implementing safety. Others include requiring face masks, avoiding inter-mingling with others at the mosques, refraining from physical contact with greetings, and each worshiper bringing personal items instead of sharing communal ones.

The Muslim community also hopes to open for for congregational prayers and other activities during Phase 2, “as such, we urge the community to work closely with mosque leaders to continue to curb the spread of the virus by adopting the necessary precautions when visiting our mosques, and to visit mosques during this period only when necessary.”

Singaporean Hindu temples will carry on similarly to mosques with the amount of people allowed at funerals and marriages, as well as regarding SafeEntry and temperature checks. Some temples will require pre-booking to be allowed inside to use services. Devotees without booking are allowed to pray from the entrance however.

Devotees will not be allowed to stay in the temples for prolonged periods or consume any of the blessed foods within. Temples will not offer Theertham, Vibhuthi, Kumkumam, or Thulasi in the hands of a devotee, nor will there be any Safari blessing done. Kalanji and/or Prasadam may be provided with minimum contact.

But what is the largest religious community in Singapore, the followers of Buddhism, doing to continue their practice despite COVID-19? Like many other religious groups, the Buddhist community in Singapore is turning to online gatherings. Buddhist temples have come up with innovative ways to continue their spiritual practices like hosting guided meditation sessions, chanting and observing other rituals online.

To make offerings, devotees can make online accounts to donate directly to the temple and pay for items. The site has offered helpful information for staying safe during the “circuit breaker” as well as videos on how to cook vegetarian dishes, and sharing photos of their preparation of Vesak Day (celebrating the enlightenment of the Buddha). The Vesak Day procession, where typically thousands of Buddhists walk and bow around the Kong Men San Phor Kark See Monastery, was instead held though a Zoom session and live-streamed on the Buddhist Youth Network Facebook page.  Over 30 Buddhist families participated in performing this ritual at home together on this Zoom call, inspiring hundreds of others.

As debates rage in the United States and around the world about the best way to manage religious obligations and personal freedoms for the practice of religion even in a time of pandemic, the Singaporean case of regulation across a number of different world faiths can prompt reflection on the balance between personal devotion and community safety.

Author: Camryn Thomas

Malaysia cracks down on migrant workers as part of Covid-19 response

The government of Malaysia, relatively new after a realignment in parliament led to a surprise and controversial new administration at the end of February 2020, has moved to crack down on migrant workers—claiming this is part of its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Friday, May 1, 2020, the Malaysian government office overseeing immigration conducted raids in areas of Kuala Lumpur with many migrant workers (story in the leading Malaysian government-aligned paper, New Straits Times), rounding up those claimed to be in the country illegally and laying the groundwork to expel them. Many have criticized the way these operations were conducted (story from the BBC), including an observer from Human Rights Watch who said they herding of large groups in close quarters was likely to increase the spread of the virus, not contain it, and Malaysian NGOs that say this will create a culture of fear (story from the online media outlet with old ties to the opposition MalaysiaKini). The government’s explanation (again from the New Straits Times) is that migrant workers would be hard to track and control if they became vectors of infection, so the government must act preemptively. The government is also saying (MalaysiaKini) that those migrants whose paperwork is not in order may leave without any penalties—as long as they get out of Malaysia.

This story has some resonances of the recent second wave of infections in Singapore, which centered on (legal) migrant workers with few health protections living in crowded dormitories (story from Bloomberg). It seems non-citizens are particularly vulnerable at this time because they do not receive health support from the governments in the places where they live, and this is more acute for low-income laborers.

Malaysia has been living under a Movement Control Order (basically, shelter-in-place orders) since March 18, 2020, but the Prime Minister has announced these will be loosened effective May 4 (story from Singapore’s state-backed paper, Straits Times). It is unclear how the round-up of migrant workers may be connected to loosening restrictions as Malaysia hopes to begin opening the economy.

Author: Kevin W. Fogg